The great Hollywood director Billy Wilder, who was born in Eastern Europe when his home town was ruled from Vienna, once noted that the genius of Austria lay in convincing the world that Beethoven was a native son, but Hitler was not.
Today we see a similar cultural sleight-of-hand, but this time in the Scepter’d Isle of Britain, where some would remind us that one of their own is actually one of ours.
The satirical British magazine Private Eye’s souvenir issue commemorating the ascent of Boris Johnson as prime minister is a hallmark of the genre. The caption on the cover the week of the moonshot anniversary, showing Johnson goofily mugging for the cameras as he enters Number 10 Downing Street, reads “Loon Landing.” But it’s the subhead that deserves closer attention: “The Ego Has Landed—America Plants Flag on U.K.”
This isn’t just another hackneyed reference to Johnson’s surface similarities to Donald Trump, which include urine-colored tumbleweed coifs, the elevation of pathological mendacity to a political art form, and, excepting Johnson’s higher erudition (he regularly spouts gobbets of ancient Greek), the impressive willingness to speak without coherence or elementary knowledge about the things that supposedly matter most to either man.
The United States might have installed a president for whom the pinnacle of notoriety was an unending smorgasbord of genital groping, but the United Kingdom now has a prime minister whose outspoken distaste for marital fidelity owes to his being “literally bursting with spunk.”
Which is why, for all the inevitable copy that’s been filed about this “eccentric” English toff, Johnson is better seen as a thoroughly Anglo-American farce. He plays a Brit the way Americans are accustomed to thinking of one while often behaving more American than British.
Still known to his family as “Al”—short for Alexander, his first name—the man everyone annoyingly calls Boris was born in Manhattan, raised partly in Washington, D.C.. Even as mayor of London he acted more like the mayor of an American megalopolis such as New York or Chicago, which is to say a “global ambassador” turned wild-eyed developer who left the city, like a crooked Tammany ward heeler, mired in unfinished infrastructure projects and needless debt.
Johnson is also the apotheosis of that very American phenomenon, failing upward, having launched a brilliant career in journalism—more performance art than first draft of history—on being caught inventing quotations and sacked for it. His relationship with the truth only declined from there, but his income skyrocketed.
Nor is the man who famously got stuck halfway down a zip-line during the Olympics, waving Union Jacks like some tourist-trap street merchant at Piccadilly, beyond swapping roast-beef cliches for apple-pie ones when it suits his needs.
See, for instance, his last Daily Telegraph column before winning the party leadership and thus the premiership. The first two-thirds is dedicated to a gosh-wow commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the moonshot, with its near-fatal miscalculations and bare-bones technological marvels. The last third devolves into comparing that improbable scientific achievement with navigating the bureaucratic and ideological morass of Brexit, the very policy disaster Johnson, more than any other politician, unleashed upon his country, even though he was famously unsure about its prospects.
“If they could use hand-knitted computer code to make a frictionless re-entry to Earth’s atmosphere in 1969,” he concludes, “we can solve the problem of frictionless trade at the Northern Irish border.”
By the time you arrive at this absurd sentence—one made even more so by the shoe-horned repetition of “frictionless”—you’ve almost forgotten that NASA is an American not British government agency, rendering the Brexit analogy utterly meaningless. Johnson might as well invoke the “Spirit of ’76” to argue for opting for a no-deal outcome with Brussels.
But no matter. These are mere details, and getting details wrong has always been his forte.
Even his avowed devotion to Churchill comes across less as a reverential tribute to the great man than as an upstart’s ironic appreciation of a fellow huckster’s progress. What Johnson loves most about his Tory predecessor are the shortcomings: the outsize appetites, the shameless ambition, and the shambles of a career—what he terms Churchill’s “feast of bungling!”—redeemed by sheer will to power and world-historical circumstance. Forget licking Hitler. Living down Gallipoli, the return to the gold standard and the abdication crisis were the Last Lion’s finest hours.
Johnson’s most self-conscious pen portrait, however, is his only work of fiction, a 2004 satire titled Seventy-Two Virgins. The novel features a Conservative backbencher named Roger Barlow who, quite by accident, saves the visiting American president from a jihadist kidnapping plot. Barlow is tow-headed, bicycling adulterer destined for oblivion until events intervene to make him an international hero. So far, so obvious.
But here, I think, lies a coded message in the choice of surname for Johnson’s alter ego, particularly as the book makes savage mockery of the so-called “special relationship.”
Dennis Barlow is Evelyn Waugh’s has-been English poet and transplant to the United States—well, Los Angeles, anyway—in The Loved One. He fails to make it as a screenwriter in Hollywood and becomes a minor embarrassment to a close-knit and tightly self-regulated coterie of fellow exiles, all of them witting self-parodies of stiff-upper-lipped Englishmen.
“We limeys have a peculiar position to keep up, you know, Barlow,” says Sir Ambrose Abercrombie, who routinely traipses through Bel Air in a cape and deer-stalker cap because it’s what the yanks expect of him. “They may laugh at us a bit—the way we talk and the way we dress; our monocles—they may think us cliquey and stand-offish, but, by God, they respect us.”
It doesn’t help that Barlow is a lower-order chancer, sans knighthood, with little to no self-respect and that he is a borderline sociopath to boot. Having been cast out of the movie business, he now earns a modest income working at a pet mortuary called the Happier Hunting Ground.
By novel’s end, and after a darkly hilarious entanglement with a dimwitted American mortician, he has decided that a far more lucrative racket on these shores lies in the non-sectarian clergy, catering to weddings and, given his prior speciality, funerals. Barlow is to be ordained. Well, this simply won’t do and it threats to make Barlow a major embarrassment to Sir Ambrose and his Cricket Club, which serves as a kind of diplomatic mission dedicated to maintaining transatlantic cultural illusions.
The club raises the money to send Barlow home where he at least can live out his life in discreet disgrace and not ruin things for the rest of the monocled castaways on the coast. This result, one senses, was what Barlow was searching for all through his steady descent into personal and national ruin: a free ride.
That certainly sounds familiar, as does Waugh’s subtitle for The Loved One: “an Anglo-American tragedy.”